The New Orleans Saints may need to rely on a relatively unknown rookie, Trey Hendrickson, to contribute big minutes as a defensive end this season.
Fortunately for the Saints, it seems that Trey Hendrickson has the tools to make that happen. Drafted in the backend of the third round, when most fans had expected an early first round pick to address the position, Hendrickson steps into a DE group that is not-so-quietly desperate to find a solid starter to complement Cam Jordan. There’s a chance Hendrickson may be that person.The DE starter opposite Jordan is easily the most important camp battle of the offseason. It’s wide open at this point.
Alongside the question-filled group of Alex Okafor, Hau’oli Kikaha and Obum Gwachum, Hendrickson has a real shot at cracking the starting lineup. A case can be made for each candidate.Okafor, a free agent addition, is the projected starter. He had a statistically productive season as a rusher for the Cardinals, but served mainly as a situational player. Whether he can emerge as an every-down DE depends largely on his recovery from an injury-filled career. The same is true for Kikaha, who, talent-wise, would serve the Saints well as a three-down end. But three ACL injuries cast doubt on his future. And then there’s Gwachum, who is easily the most talented pure pass-rusher of the group. But whether or not he can emerge as a run-defender will determine his playing time.
Hendrickson is the most unknown of these players, at least for us looking from the outside in. There’s not much tape available online on Hendrickson. Two games on DraftBreakdown, that’s about it. And only one of those is with his actual team.
But from that tape, you can see why the Saints like Hendrickson.
Scouting reports generally label Hendrickson a second-effort type player. And you’ll see that after a few minutes of tape. It’s obvious. He doesn’t give up on plays, never gives half-effort even when the ball goes away from him — which, as the best player on his DL, it often did. He chases ball carriers across the field and into the secondary if he has to. And he does that all game long. Sean Payton preaches culture and attitude as the most important things in evaluation, and it’s easy to see how Hendrickson fits that mold.
He’s also got a bit of a mean streak. He didn’t play against the best competition, although the only games I’ve watched are against 8th ranked Florida and in the East-West Shrine Game. He’s likely not used to getting moved off the ball, and even in these games it happened rarely. But when it did, you could see that it lit a fire in him. If a guard or tackle managed to move him into the second level (I only saw this twice), he kept fighting after the whistle. He didn’t let up until he’d won back his position, even if the play was long over. That’s a good sign for a player that’s going to face some strong linemen in the NFL. He doesn’t back down.
The Saints were fairly solid against the run in 2016. When they say they need a defensive end, they mean they need a pass rusher. And Hendrickson, while he doesn’t have the prototypical body of an EDGE, has enough tools and technique to get after the quarterback. From what I’ve seen, what he has should translate to the NFL.
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He has some bad physical traits — enough to knock him out of the early rounds — and some good — enough to suggest he could win the starting job in New Orleans.
The bad: he has short arms and limited bend along the EDGE. After months of watching tape on players like Derek Barnett and Takk McKinley, it’s more than a bit underwhelming to watch Hendrickson try to turn the corner on OTs. He has the speed to get around them but totally lacks the flexibility to turn and explode after the quarterback. And those short arms can allow tackles to get their hands on Hendrickson before he can really set up his rush.
The good: he has great explosion off the line of scrimmage. And he’s got a great combination of strength and speed in all phases of the rush. Like I said, he’s not quite a turn-the-edge sort of rusher. But his burst and strength allow him to get after the quarterback in other ways. He has an array of moves — and I’ll get to all that in a bit — but even without making a move he’s more than capable of disrupting the pocket just from his initial burst and bull-rush.
Again, there’s good and bad in the technique. But I gotta say, for a player that many describe as raw, there’s a hell of a lot to like.
But I’ll start with the bad: he doesn’t play with great pad level. That affects him negatively as a pass rusher — I’ll get into the impact on his game in run support later. Tackles have an easy job getting their hands on him and keeping him upright, especially as he doesn’t have long enough arms to get the first punch. If he doesn’t take an early advantage either with a pass-rush move or with his initial burst, he can get caught without much of an angle toward the QB.
The good: that doesn’t happen often. Hendrickson has a decently wide array of moves, which could, of course, be further refined. But he has more than a solid base with which to develop an arsenal of ways to approach the rush.
He has a spin move:
This is his favorite rush-move, easily. If I had to knock it, I’d say that he seems to commit to it a without reading the tackle. This can lead to, as is the case above, spinning into a double-team. And when he was far and away the best defender on his team, this was a bigger deal than it will be in the league. Hendrickson routinely faced double-teams, either from a guard or a tight end coming in to help the tackle.
The spin can also lack compactness:
This isn’t that big of a deal, in my opinion. More important is the power with which he makes his initial contact, and the speed with which he comes free. As you can see above, a spin move that’s too wide can bring him into contact with surround lineman. On the other hand, such a move creates confusion in the trenches that clearly benefits the defense. And considering Hendrickson projects as a weakside DE, he’ll usually be operating in more space than he would in the above.
Just one last example:
Combined with his more vanilla pass-rush, this spin move keeps defenders on their toes. He rarely approaches one the rush the same way as the previous, and that’s a huge asset.
He’s got an inside move:
This video is a good example of a lot that goes into Hendrickson’s tape.
First off, although this game is against Florida, that tackle needs to do better there. He throws his weight into the punch far too early and it leaves him off balance as Hendrickson swims inside. I expect — again, I only saw his games against higher-level opponents — that this is the story of much of Hendrickson’s tape. It can make him hard to evaluate. But let’s look at what he does well.
Right off the bat, he sells the move very well. Watch him explode, with good speed, toward the edge. He plants his right foot the perfect distance from the tackle and explodes with great power toward the inside. This is what makes that blocker look so foolish. Yes, the tackle needs to do better. But give credit to Hendrickson for putting him in that position. He also demonstrates great lateral quickness here, something that is a key aspect of his game, and that creates enough separation to get him free inside. If #2 doesn’t break free immediately on this play, it’s almost certainly a sack for Hendrickson. Finally, watch his hand-usage. Perfectly sheds the tackle’s punch and comes free without having lost even the smallest step toward the QB.
As I just mentioned, lateral quickness is a huge part of Hendrickson’s game. And it will be a huge part of how he’s used in Dennis Allen’s schemes.
I don’t mean to say he’s going to drop back into coverage or as a QB spy like he does in the above play, although he clearly has ability in that field. He’s got enough speed and agility to keep up with the Newtons in the league, and if Allen chooses to use him like this he could be effective. More so than Jordan or Kikaha, for example.
But where this sort of ability will be most helpful will be as a stunt-man. The Saints love to generate pressure with stunts and twists, and Hendrickson has all the tools to excel in that area. From that tape I saw, he wasn’t very successful as a stunt-man in college for a very simple reason. He was always getting double teamed. Hard to stunt when you’re the only threat on your line. Won’t be the case in New Orleans, where a lineup of Hendrickson – Fairley – Rankins – Jordan wouldn’t leave much room for double teams.
Finally, I want to talk a bit about Hendrickson’s ability as a run defender. Many scouting reports have him touted as a pure pass-rusher who sold out on the run to get after the quarterback. Maybe they’re watching different games than I am. That’s actually very likely. Because the player that I saw was possibly even more stout against the run that he was against the pass.
Remember how I said Hendrickson tends to play with bad pad level, that he stays tall and gets stood up by tackles? In the passing game, that’s a liability. It hinders his ability to create separation. But in the ground game, it’s an asset.
Hendrickson is a strong defensive end and looks even taller than he is (he’s 6’4″). Quite simply, he’s hard to move from his spot. When the run goes the other way, Hendrickson is quick to disengage and chase the ball carrier. But when runs come toward him, he fights tooth and nail to hold the edge and make the tackle.
Here, for example, he gets stood up by a double team. But he keeps moving with the play and barely surrenders any ground. He does a great job of using his hands to stay disengaged and holds his position long enough to navigate through the blockers into the backfield to make the play.
He’s got great balance to stay upright and planted enough to run the ball carrier over when he gets the chance.
And here, one of my favorite plays on the tape. It’s a crucial moment in the game, and Hendrickson again gets doubled. The right guard pulls over to him, and the tight end comes in to assist. But Hendrickson does a great job on keeping his balance through the guard’s initial contact, and keeps fighting to seal the edge. The tight end lays what should be the clean-up block on a player that’s already struggling through solid effort from the guard. But Hendrickson absorbs the block, doesn’t lose his balance, and turns to make the play. Florida Atlantic lost the game, but Hendrickson does everything he can here to get the ball back to his offense.
I wasn’t sure I’d find a player that I liked as much as Hendrickson when the gametape started. He doesn’t have the bend that you want from an EDGE player, and that, at first, seemed pretty damning. But he has upside at just about every other aspect of his game.
I see in Hendrickson a player that can develop into a bonafide three-down defensive end, with enough explosiveness and technique to be a disruptive force in pass rush. Early on, it’s hard to see how he could transplant Obum Gwachum as the situational pass-rusher. But with Alex Okafor on a one-year deal, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hendrickson as the starter opposite Jordan in 2018. And depending on how camp goes, that could even happen as early as 2017.
I’ll say this much, as a close out. Hendrickson, today, straight out of college, would be a more productive DE than Paul Kruger was in 2016. He has more moves, more athleticism, and a tougher attitude.